009 – Tesla – How Tesla (Eventually) Got His Groove Back

Not long after Tesla stormed out on Edison opportunity came knocking again…as did further betrayal and disappointment. But with the help of new business partners, Tesla was on his way to becoming a truly world-changing figure.

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Tesla – 008 – A Scandalously Short History of the Gilded Age

It is the era in which Tesla made his greatest breakthroughs and inventions, and the era in which he found fame and fortune: the Gilded Age. Today, a whirlwind tour of America in the Gilded Age–its time; its big themes; and how it changed United States (and Tesla!) forever.

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007 – Tesla vs Edison: Round 1

The episode you’ve all been waiting for! Tesla arrives in New York City and takes a job with Thomas Edison. See the seeds of a life-long rivalry sown because of a broken million-dollar promise. It’s Tesla vs. Edison: Round 1–let’s get ready to rummmble!

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Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times

EPISODE 7 – Tesla vs Edison: Round 1 (1884)

Last time, we joined Tesla in Paris and around Europe, as he worked as a trusted troubleshooter for the SE Edison Company, installing and maintaining DC electrical systems in the great cities of the Old World.

This week, we’ll follow Tesla to the New World and to New York City, where he will finally meet Edison in person and work for a time for his company in the United States. 1884 is a momentous year for Tesla, and it will take up the whole episode today, not least of all because we’ll see how the seeds of a life-long rivalry were sown between Tesla and Edison due, in part, to a broken promise…

I thought long and hard about the title for today's episode: my first thought was to call it 'The Wizard of Menlo Park'--one of Thomas Edison's nicknames. But then I thought: “Ooo—you know what's better? Call it 'Off to See the Wizard.” Pretty good, right? ...But then I tghought: “Nah--who am I kidding? Give the people what they want?” So, like I said last week: welcome to Tesla vs Edison: Round 1!

In January 1884, the British organization The Fabian Society is founded in London, dedicated to gradual social change along socialist lines.

Also in England, February sees the publication of “A New English Dictionary on historical principles, part 1,” edited by James A. H. Murray. This provides the basis for what will become The Oxford English Dictionary.

On May 1st, the eight-hour workday is proclaimed by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the United States.

Also in May, Angelo Moriondo of Turin is granted a patent for the espresso machine.

In June, the "Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway" opens at Coney Island. It is the first roller coaster in the United States.

The Dow Jones Transportation Average was created on July 3. Consisting originally of nine railroads, as well as Western Union and Pacific Mail, it is the oldest stock index still in use—being even older than its better-known relative, the Dow Jones Industrial Average. That young whipper-snapper was only put together in 1896.

August saw the cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty laid on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor.

In September, Karl Koller announces the invention of local anesthesia at a medical congress in Heidelberg, Germany.

On October 22, the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C. fixes the Greenwich meridian as the world's prime meridian—that is, the meridian whose longitude is designated as 0°. Together, a prime meridian and its antimeridian (the 180th meridian in a 360°-system) form a great circle dividing the Earth into two hemispheres, which is where we get the Eastern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere.

And that’s your fun fact of the day!

However, despite the decision of this conference, France abstained from the vote, and French maps continued to use the Paris meridian for several decades. Vive la difference.

Porfirio Díaz, a Mexican general and politician, returned to office as President of Mexico. All told, he served seven terms in office: first 1876 to 1880, and again from 1884 all the way until 1911. That’s three and a half decades in power. Take that McKenzie King!

The Washington Monument was completed in December in Washington, D.C., becoming the tallest structure in the world. Taller than the dome of St. Peters in Rome, taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Washington Monument retained the title for only five years, however, until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889.

And also in December, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published. But for copyright reasons, it was published first in London, not the United States.

Born in 1884 were:

Sophie Tucker, "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Though born in Russia, she would become one of the most popular entertainers in America during the first half of the 20th century
Also Bradbury Robinson, who is most notable in history for throwing the first forward pass in American football in 1906.

A number of important figures in World War II were born in 1884:
Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese naval commander (d. 1943)
Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States (d. 1972)
Eleanor Roosevelt, American politician, diplomat, activist, and First Lady of the United States (d. 1962)
and Tojo Hideki, Prime Minister of Japan (d. 1948)

Notable deaths include:

Gregor Mendel, noted Czech geneticist and monk
Famed Scottish-American detective and spy master, Allan Pinkerton, who founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. During the American Civil War, Pinkerton served as head of the Union Intelligence Service for two years, thwarting an assassination attempt against Abraham Lincoln. After the war, Pinkerton pursued train robbers on behalf of the railroad companies, but failed to capture Jesse James. After Pinkerton died, his company became notorious for strike breaking and other activities against organized labor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Where is the Fabian Society when you need it, huh?
And in an absolutely awful coincidence, Theodore Roosevelt lost both his first wife Alice, and his mother Martha on the same day—on Valentine’s Day.


Mid way through the year, on June 6, 1884 Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City aboard the ship the City of Richmond. As was the case with many immigrants, the customs officer had trouble understanding the new arrival and recorded Tesla’s birthplace as Sweden and not Smiljan. Years later Tesla recalled that process of formally entering the United States consisted of a clerk barking at him, “Kiss the Bible. Twenty cents!”

If you want to know what the scene looked like, watch Godfather Part II where young Vito Andolini arrives at Ellis Island…and is promptly rechristened Vito Corleone, when the custom’s officer reads his birth place as his last name. It was just like that…except that in later years, Tesla would put fewer horse heads in people’s beds.

In some ways, even if you’ve never been to New York City, you have a sense that you know it.

Because if you’ve consumed any American media at all—from Hollywood movies, to TV shows like Law & Order, to Spider-man comic books—you’ve absorbed New York by proxy a thousand times over. It is a character in so many stories, just as it is in the story of Nikola Tesla.

But what I want you to do now is try and cast your mind back to the very different New York City that Tesla arrived in: New York City with no skyscrapers. New York City before the automobile. The city that never sleeps lit after dark by the hiss of gaslight, not the hum of electricity. No brilliant neon signs in Times Square (because Tesla hadn’t yet invented neon lights!) No beeping car horns or screeching tires. Instead, the clatter of horse hooves, the rattle of handsome cab wheels. Tenement buildings packed to bursting with wave after wave of recent arrivals, immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, Greece… When Tesla’s ship pulled into New York harbour, the Brooklyn Bridge was only partly built, and it was a still-under-construction Statue of Liberty that greeted him.

Tesla’s was…less than impressed.

A fairly cosmopolitan fellow by this point in his life, having lived in some of the great European cities like Prague, Budapest, and Paris, Tesla found New York City dirty, crude, and vulgar.

As he wrote in his autobiography, “What I had left was beautiful, artistic, and fascinating in every way; what I saw here was machined, rough, and unattractive. A burly policeman was twirling his stick which looked to me as big as a log. I approached him politely, with the request to direct me [to an address]. ‘Six blocks down, then to the left,’ he said, with murder in his eyes. ‘Is this America?’ I asked myself in painful surprise. ‘It is a century behind Europe in civilization.’”

New York City was also a city just beginning to grapple with the possibilities of electricity. To see pictures of this era is to see giant masts along the sidewalks, strung with a massive tangle of telegraph wires and electric power cables. They were an impenetrable nest of wires, and it’s a wonder there weren’t more fires.

New, electrically powered trolleys added to the congestion of already teeming streets. When the trolleys actually managed to run (breakdowns in their dynamos were common), they frightened the passengers as much as they did the pedestrians. Electricity itself was still so little known and so misunderstood that the editor of one newspaper warned that anyone reckless enough to ride a trolleys would be stricken with palsy and shouldn’t expect anyone’s sympathy because of their foolish decision.

Brooklynites quickly gained the nickname “Trolley Dodgers” for their reckless abandon at crossing streets too close to the oncoming trolleys. In fact, the nickname became so linked with the borough that in 1895 the local professional baseball team officially changed its name to the Brooklyn Troller Dodgers, and later shortened it simply to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

And that’s a bonus fun fact for today!

So this was the unfamiliar world Tesla stepped into in quest of his dream of alternating current. Deferring his planned meeting with Edison one day to look up an old friend, Tesla happened to pass by “a small machine shop in which the foreman was trying to repair an electric machine…He had just given up the task as hopeless.”

Now, Tesla himself over the years told two versions of what happened next: in one, he agrees to fix the machine “without a thought for compensation.” In the second, Tesla revealed that “it was a machine I had helped design, but I did not tell them that. I asked…‘what would you give me if I fix it?’ ‘Twenty dollars’ was the reply. I took off my coat and went to work, [and]…had it running perfectly in an hour.” The story is a minor one, yes, but it’s important because, depending on which version you believe, two different Teslas emerge: one motivated by money and one not. As we’ll see over upcoming podcasts, both Teslas exist within the same man at the same time. However, it would be incorrect to say (as some Tesla fans, and even some Tesla biographers do) that Tesla was never interested in money or on capitalizing on his inventions.

Whatever his hesitation about the city, Tesla was looking forward to meeting the great Edison and securing a job. He made his way to Edison’s new laboratory, a former ironworks at Goerck Street, which was only a few blocks from the central lighting station Edison was constructing at Pearl Street.

“I was thrilled to the marrow by meeting Edison,” Tesla said. And why wouldn’t he be?

Now, there is evidence to suggest that Edison and Tesla had already met once, in Paris during a little-known trip Edison took to inspect his European operations.

Edison himself would later recount their first meeting:

“I remember the first time I saw him. We were doing some experimenting in a little place outside Paris, and one day a long, lanky lad came in and said he wanted a job. We put him to work thinking he would soon tire of his new occupation for we were putting in 20-24 hours a day, then, but he stuck right to it and after things eased up one of my men said to him: “Well, Tesla, you’ve worked pretty hard, now I’m going to take you into Paris and give you a splendid supper.” So he took him to the most expensive cafe in Paris—a place where they broil an extra thick steak between two thin steaks. Tesla stowed away one of those big fellows without any trouble and my man said to him: “Anything else, my boy? I’m standing treat.” “Well, if you don’t mind, sir,” said my apprentice, “I’ll try another steak.” After he left me he went into other lines and has accomplished quite a little.”

Quite a little, indeed.

For his part, Tesla’s accounts of this meeting vary pretty dramatically depending on his mood and the audience. In his autobiography, for instance, he writes: ‘the meeting with Edison was a memorable event in my life. I was amazed at this wonderful man who, without early advantages and scientific training, had accomplished so much. I had studied a dozen languages, delved in literature and art, and had spent my best years in libraries…and felt that most of my life had been squandered.”

However, years later at Edison’s death in 1931, Tesla’s recollection of the man was a bitter one.

“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene... [I]f he had not married later a woman of exceptional intelligence, who made it the one object of her life to preserve him, he would have died many years ago from consequences of sheer neglect….If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search…His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 per cent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense…the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of a miracle.”

It’s unclear just how well Tesla and Edison got to know each other during this time. Remember that Tesla was, at this point, a nobody. He was one of around 20 or so junior engineers at the firm. While Marc Seifer insists that Tesla, Edison and some higher ups from the Edison companies would often dine together and play billiards, W. Bernard Carlson suggests that during the six months or so that Tesla worked for Edison, the two men only crossed paths a handful of times.

At the best of times, Edison was difficult to get to know. He was a strong personality, and Tesla no doubt would have found him brash and abrasive.

There was Edison's bizarre sense of humour, for instance.

Editor and engineer Thomas Commerford Martin (a friend of Tesla) once wrote that Edison, unable to find Tesla’s obscure birthplace in Croatia on a map—and perhaps thinking it was close enough to Transylvania—asked him whether he had ever eaten human flesh. Tesla, naturally, was horrified.

And that was the least of it.

Thomas Alva Edison was a deeply complex character.

Already graying at age thirty-two, perpetually dressed in hand-sewn gingham smocks provided by his wife, Edison was an ungainly, swinging, stooping, shuffling figure. He was ornery, ingenious, determined, but also stubborn, unyielding, and surprisingly short-sighted at times. At the height of his powers he was not only a cut-throat business man, but the single most important inventor on the planet.

I know that in the mythology of the Tesla story, Edison is cast in the role of villain, but don’t sell Edison’s genius short: he (and his team) were responsible for the telephone transmitter (microphone), an electrical pen, a musical telephone, and the duplex telegraph, which enabled a telegraph to send four messages in two directions simultaneously.

Perhaps his most original work was the talking machine: the phonograph. Now, this is where I first really encountered Edison, as I mentioned in an earlier episode that my work in grad school focused on the history of the early recording industry. Recorded sound is so ubiquitous these days that we don’t even think about it or notice it (except, maybe, when for some reason the sound won’t work on the YouTube clip we’re trying to stream). But consider the world BEFORE recorded sound: no recorded music; no audio record of famous speeches; no way to save for posterity the voices of the living, or to recall the voices of the dead. Something once heard—a song, a joke, a laugh—was gone forever.

For this invention, Edison became known—rightly— as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” after the location of his famous lab.

Perhaps even more profound than the phonograph, though, Edison’s best-known and most lasting contribution to civilization was the practical incandescent light bulb. Ask anyone what Edison is known for and just about everyone will say “he invented the lightbulb.”

Edison was a showman, inviting the public to his laboratory and amazing them with machines that sang and reproduced the sound of birds, artificial lamps that illuminated the darkness, and mechanical devices of all kinds that would make one’s work and life easier.

But he also had a cruel streak, particularly with animals of various kinds. He had a small electric grid lining the edges of the floor of his factory that helped keep the place free of cockroaches. He also delighted in using his electric “rat paralyzer” which, as he himself said, “electri-fried” creatures larger than a cockroach. Later, during the War of the Currents, he would deliberately and gruesomely electrocute cats, dogs, and even (in a particularly horrifying display) a full-grown African elephant, all to try and demonstrate the lethal danger of alternating current. To play up this danger, Edison was a driving force behind the development of the electric chair, advocating strongly that not only should it use AC power, but that the act of being electrocuted to death should be called “getting Westinghoused”—after his chief rival (and Tesla AC system proponent in the War of the Currents), George Westinghouse.

Edison even occasionally wired up the washbasin at his lab, to zap his employees and keep them on their toes.

Sounds like a delightful boss.

Edison was by turns a trickster, a teller of tales, and a con artist.

And now Tesla was working for him. He began his employment at the Edison Machine Works on 8 June, 1884 with a monthly salary of $75 (about $1700 a month in today’s US dollars). He would work there for only six months.

So, if Tesla only worked for Edison for half a year, and if he only met the man a few times, how much should we make of the rivalry between Edison and Tesla? I’ll probably at some point do a special separate episode on this, or we’ll get into it a bit when we talk about the War of the Currents, but for right now (as with so much about Tesla) let’s assume it’s all been a bit overblown.

The two weren’t friends, that’s plain to see. For a time they were employer-employee, colleagues, and later were rivals. And particularly on Tesla’s part, despite the ultimate victory of the AC system he helped design over Edison’s DC system, there was still lingering resentment and bitterness from the hard-nosed tactics employed by Edison during the War of the Currents. But I’m not sure that a lot of the personal animus people these days ascribe to the two is realistic.

They did travel in some of the same circles, and would encounter one another socially from time to time over the years. But no gauntlets were thrown down, no pistols at ten paces, nothing like that.

In fact, when Tesla started to become well-known, Edison sent Tesla an autographed picture of himself. Tesla appreciated the gesture and cherished this token from Edison. And later, when Tesla appeared before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers to promote his wireless scheme, Edison put in a rare public appearance to hear what he had to say. To show his appreciation, Tesla got the assembled crowd to give Edison a standing ovation.

A standing ovation? Not exactly the Hatfields and the McCoys…

I think W. Bernard Carlson is correct here: the reason so much has been made of this so-called rivalry is the need many people have for historical figures to be cast as rather simple black-and-white, or good-vs-evil opposites. Carlson points out that one such pair of archetypes is "the money grubbing businessman (i.e.: Edison) versus the dreamy visionary artist (i.e.: Tesla).”

Edison was always the better businessman, so naturally he has to play the role of the bad guy. It is, as Carlson argues, a reflection of the battle in the popular mind between commerce and art. Commerce bad; art good.

But the reality of invention and innovation is that art and commerce have to work together. Research needs funding from somewhere and the invention needs to be manufactured, integrated into a larger commercial system, and marketed and sold to consumers.

So we’ll leave it there for now (and we’ll probably revisit it later) but for now, back to the events on the ground at the Edison Machine Works:

Given Edison’s predisposition to hate AC, and with Tesla’s actual amount of interaction with Edison in question, it’s not surprising that Nikola wasn’t able to convince Edison of the value of his AC inventions.

Instead, he was put to work redesigning the existing Edison DC equipment. According to Tesla, “the Manager had promised me $50,000 on completion of this task.” Now, that’s the equivalent of $1.2 million US dollars in today’s currency—enough for Tesla to set up his own shop. It was the big break he’d been longing for. Needless to say, he jumped at the opportunity, “experiment[ing] day and night, holidays not excepted,” by his own account. He claimed to routinely work from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 in the morning the next day.

He redesigned Edison’s Mary-Ann dynamos, replacing their long magnets with more efficient short-core designs. Tesla claimed that this change tripled the dynamo’s output.

He moved between the Pearl Street power station and the nearby Edison Machine Works, installing or fixing indoor incandescent lamps and outdoor arc lights, reassembling many of Edison’s DC generators, and designing a couple of dozen different types of machines that quickly replaced those used by Edison. At the same time, he worked on patents on arc lamps, regulators, dynamos, and commutators for the DC system.

Employed some weeks with the Edison company, there was one incident which Tesla felt at last gained him the confidence of Edison.

The Edison company had installed two DC dynamos in the S.S. Oregon, at that time the record holder as fastest transatlantic passenger ship and, supposedly, the first boat ever to have electric lighting. I haven’t been able to verify that 100%, but if it wasn’t the first it must surely have been among the first.

Both of the Oregon’s dynamos decided to fail at the same time one day while in port, and the ship’s departure from New York was delayed. The ship had been built around these dynamos, so replacement was impossible. Tesla, ever the troubleshooter during his work in Europe, grabbed his tools. “The dynamos were in bad condition,” he reports in his autobiography, “having several short-circuits and breaks.” Working through the night, and with some assistance from the crew, Tesla was able to repair both generators.

As he returned to the Edison offices at 5 a.m. the next morning, Tesla came upon Edison, Batchelor, and a few others who were just leaving after their own late-night shifts. According to Tesla, Edison said, “Here is our Parisian running around at night.” But when Tesla told Edison that, rather than carousing, he had just finished repairing the dynamos on the Oregon, Edison walked away in silence…until he thought he was out of earshot of Tesla, at which point Edison turned to Batchelor and said, “Batchellor [sic], this is a damn good man.”

Having sorted out the redesign of Edison’s dynamos, Tesla was next tasked with developing an arc-lighting system.

Arc-lighting (which is still used today in certain applications) was first developed in 1808 by Sir Humphry Davy, who created artificial illumination by running an electric current across a small gap between two carbon rods. This simple device evolved into the arc lamp, which by the 1860s was being used in English lighthouses, and was publically displayed in the United States during the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, celebrating the county’s centennial. By the 1870s, a number of inventors were racing to develop a way to enclose the arc lamp within glass, so as to make it safer and more attractive to market as a household lighting system.

In the mid-1880s, the Edison organization decided that it, too, needed an arc-lighting system in order to compete with its major competitors, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company (co-founded by Elihu Thomson, who we mentioned last week was one of Tesla’s predecessors in experimenting with A/C power), as well as the Brush Electric Light Company, and the United States Electric Lighting Company. These rivals started out manufacturing and installing arc lighting, and they expanded into incandescent lighting systems.

Edison did it the other way: he had developed an incandescent system first, one which worked great for lighting the interiors of homes and offices, but which wasn’t very good for exterior or street lighting. As towns and cities set up new central stations for providing electric lighting to both streets and homes, the Edison company lost contracts to Thomson-Houston or Brush Electric since these firms could install both arc and incandescent lights.

Edison sketched out a design for an arc lamp and filed a patent for it in June 1884. It was these rough outlines that Tesla was handed, and then left to his own devices to work out the details of how the full electrical system would actually operate.

Tesla did, indeed, develop an arc-lighting system for Edison—all the while thinking he would be handsomely rewarded at the end. But once he handed in the plans, the whole system was shelved. While it’s unclear whether Tesla ever received an explanation as to why, W. Bernard Carlson does a good job of breaking down the likely reasons:

The first was a business decision: the Thomas A. Edison Construction Department, which oversaw the building of power stations routinely lost money through bad co-financing arrangements with municipalities and local utility companies. Consequently, by early 1885 Edison decided to get out of the power station building business. His organization struck a deal with the American Electric Manufacturing Company (AEM), who wanted to expand their arc-light installation business to include incandescent lighting. From then on, when AEM saw an opportunity to install an incandescent lighting system it would sell the local utility an Edison system; and when the Edison organization wanted to install an arc-lighting system, it would use the system owned by AEM.

The existence of Tesla’s arc system might have been a useful bargaining chip to help Edison secure favourable terms from AEM, but once the deal was inked the Edison organization no longer had any need for the arc system developed by Tesla.

The second reason highlighted by Carlson was technical: other engineers in the Edison company had developed an incandescent lighting alternative to the arc-light. It was called the “municipal system,” and could be used for street lighting since it used larger incandescent lamps that operated at higher voltage.

At this point, Tesla approached another engineer at Menlo Park, Harry Livor, for his advice on how to obtain a raise from his modest salary of eighteen dollars per week to a more lucrative twenty-five dollars.

Livor, in addition to his work for the Edison organization, was a small-time entrepreneur in machine-works manufacturing who had once boasted to Tesla of an agreement he’d struck with Edison and Batchelor to form a company capitalized at $10,000 for the manufacture of shafting. Edison and Batchelor provided the machinery and money, Livor, the tools and services.

Clearly then, this was the man to make a raise happen for Tesla. And why wouldn’t he deserve a raise, if as Tesla claimed in his autobiography, his working hours “For nine months…were 10:30 A.M. till 5 A.M. the next day.”

Except, Tesla was only employed by Edison for about six months.

I suppose if you’re keeping those kinds of hours, the days and weeks and months must blend together…

In any event, Livor approached Batchelor on Tesla’s behalf about the raise.

“No,” was the answer from Batchelor. “The woods are full of men like [Tesla],” he said. “I can get any number of them I want for $18 a week.”

Sounds like a lot of bosses I’ve had…

This also, I think, tends to further disprove the idea that Tesla had a glowing letter of recommendation from Batchelor when he arrived in America. Surely, if Tesla was one of two great men that Batchelor knew (the other, of course, being Edison) surely he could cough up an extra $7 a week.

And then there’s the matter of the $50,000 bonus for redesigning equipment.

Remember that? The bonus worth $1.2 million in today’s dollars?

Well, Tesla hadn’t forgotten. And at some point, after seeming to waffle about it for a while, he worked up the courage to ask for the payment in light of all the work he’d done.

Needless to say, all he got was another ‘no.’

Tesla lays all this squarely at the feet of Thomas Edison, who he says “merely laughed” when asked for the pay out. “You are still a Parisian,” Tesla quotes Edison as saying. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”

Now, the idea that somebody would have legitimately promised that kind of bonus to anyone in the company, let alone an untested new employee, is a bit far-fetched unless it was said in jest. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that if the joke was made that Tesla, who was literally fresh off the boat, might have believed it was a promise made in good faith. While fluent in English, idiom or irony or humour can be very difficult to pick up on in any second language.

It was also Edison’s habit to make “expensive if indefinite promises of rewards as a way of getting the men to work for low wages.” Edison, who also liked to pretend he was more hard of hearing than he actually was when it suited him, was known to enjoy putting on his college-educated employees as a way of making himself feel superior (never having had the kind of formal education they did). One story is told of Edison convincing the chemist Martin Rosanoff that his first lightbulb filament was made out of Limburger cheese. And it strikes me that in all of Tesla’s accounts of his time working for Edison, he always quotes Edison as describing him as “our Parisian.” Was there more than a whiff of insecurity, or jealousy, or feelings of inadequacy on the part of Edison for his lack of worldliness, and lack of formal education?


Either way, Tesla wasn’t getting his wheelbarrow full of cash. Deeply hurt, he resigned in disgust. As his last notebook entry while working for Edison, dated for the period from December 7th 1884 to January 4th 1885, Tesla scrawled in large letters: “Good by [sic] to the Edison Machine Works!”

And on the very next page of the journal, Tesla began making notes for his own company.


Next time, as Tesla decides to strike out on his own, we’re going to take a brief step back from the man himself to have a closer look at the world he was entering. This is America in the Gilded Age, and it was the era in which Tesla would do his greatest work and gain his greatest wealth and fame. So we’ll take a whirlwind tour of the 30 year period known as the Gilded Age and get a sense of the times, both in America broadly and in New York City specifically, since the city features so prominently in Tesla’s life and work.


As always, thanks for listening to Tesla: The Life and Times. If you’re enjoying the show please spread the word: tell a friend who you think might enjoy it, too, or share a link to the show via your social media.

I hope you’ll go to iTunes, or Google Play, or Stitcher (or wherever you get your podcasts) and leave a rating and review. The more ratings and reviews we get, the more chance people who might not otherwise encounter the show will see it and subscribe. Thanks for your help.

Past episodes, as well as show notes can be found on our website: www.teslapodcast.com

You can sign up there for our e-mail list, with updates and alerts about the show, links to articles, and other stuff related to Tesla, his life, and times.

You can keep up to date about the show on our Facebook page. And you can also always contact me directly via email at tesla@kotowych.com, or on Twitter with the handle @OurManKoto

Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.

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Tesla’s First AC Motor (Strasbourg 1883)

For some reason, I can’t get the image of Tesla’s first AC motor (his “marvelous simplicity”) to post in the show notes for this week’s episode. So here it is in a post of its own, instead.

– S.

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006 – Tesla – Is Paris Electrified? (1882-1884)

This week we follow Tesla to Paris and a job with the new Edison lighting company there. In Paris, Telsa gains his first real, practical exposure to the nitty-gritty of designing and building dynamos and motors, and gets a taste for just how good the good life can be.

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Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times

EPISODE 6 – Is Paris Electrified? (1882-1884)

Last time, we looked at just the first few months of 1882, when Tesla had his eureka moment in the park and understood in a flash the concept of using rotating magnetic fields as the basis for his new electric motor—later called an induction motor.

This week, we’ll follow Tesla to Paris where he’ll take a job with the new Edison lighting company there, and quickly become one of its most trusted troubleshooters. It was here that Tesla gained his first real, practical exposure to the nitty-gritty of designing and building dynamos and motors, and where he got a taste for just how good the good life could be.

Before we begin, though, I just want to give a big shoutout and thank you to all those of you who have been in touch via Facebook and Twitter to say that you're enjoying the show. It's been a lot of fun to put together so far, and I'm looking forward to many more episodes.

Since the show premiered in September there have been nearly 1000 downloads, which I'm pretty thrilled about conisdreing I wasn't sure whether anybody but me would be interested in a podcast about Tesla's life.

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We left off in 1882, and in May of that year The Triple Alliance was formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The military alliance would endure until 1914, when it would dissolve acrimoniously in the run-up to the First World War.

In June, Ferdinand von Lindemann published his proof of the transcendentality of pi.

In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed. It is the first major law which restricts immigration into the United States. It wouldn't be the last.

Also in the United States, Carolyn Merrick was elected president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, an organization dedicated primarily to the prohibition of the sale and consumption of alchol. The Personal Liberty League was formed shortly thereafter, established to oppose the temperance movement in the United States.

In September, for all you footie fans out there, Tottenham Hotspur F.C. was founded in London.

And also in September is the last of our big dates in 1882 for the history of electric power: on September 4, Thomas Edison (who we’ll meet for the first time next episode) flips the switch to the first commercial electrical power plant in the United States. It provides DC power, and lights one square mile of lower Manhattan. This is considered by many as the day that begins the electrical age.

Notable births in 1882 include:
• Igor Stravinsky, famed Russian composer
• Geoffrey de Havilland, British aviation pioneer and aircraft company founder is born, as is Raymonde de Laroche, French aviator, and the first woman to receive a pilot’s license.
• Hans Geiger was born in 1882. A German physicist, he is best known as the co-inventor of the radiation-detecting Geiger counter, and for the Geiger–Marsden experiment which discovered the atomic nucleus.
• October saw the birth of Robert Goddard, the American rocket scientist; A. Y. Jackson, famed Canadian painter and a founding member of the Group of Seven; and Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian-born actor best known for playing Dracula in the famed 1931 movie of the same name. Your fun fact for today: Lugosi was so identified with the role of Dracula that he was buried in one of his Dracula capes…
• December saw the birth of two notable scientists: on the 11th, Max Born was…well…born. A German physicist and mathematician, Max Born was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics, for which he would win the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics.
• And on December 28, squeaking in just under the wire for 1882, was Arthur Eddington—later Sir Arthur, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Arthur Eddington was an English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, as well as a philosopher and a popularizer of science. Eddington wrote a number of articles that announced and explained Einstein's theory of general relativity to the English-speaking world, particularly during World War I when (for obvious reasons) new developments in German science were not well known in England. He also conducted an expedition to observe the solar eclipse of 29 May 1919 that provided one of the earliest confirmations of general relativity.

In addition to Jesse James, other notable deaths in 1882 include:
• Mary Todd Lincoln, former First Lady of the United States;
• Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi
• And British naturalist and father of the Theory of Evolution, Charles Darwin.

When we left off last time, Tesla and his friend Szigeti had left Budapest for Paris. The telephone exchange that employed them had been sold, and the owners—the Puskas Brothers—had offered both men jobs in the new Edison lighting company in Paris that they were getting off the ground. They arrived in Paris in the spring of 1882, and Tesla must surely have been excited about the possibility of meeting representatives of the Edison companies from America, who could build his new AC motor and help drum up investors.

It’s fair to say that Paris in the late 19th Century was the centre of European culture and fashion. A stop on the well-known Grand Tours taken by wealthy elites from England, the United States, and elsewhere, through these high-class tourists the culture and fashion of Paris were transmitted to the whole world.

“I never can forget the deep impression that magic city produced on my mind,” Tesla writes in his autobiography. “For several days after my arrival I roamed thru [sic] the streets in utter bewilderment of the new spectacle.”

During this time, Tesla led what he described later as a "Rooseveltian” life (that’s Teddy Roosevelt, known for advocating a strenuous, physical, ‘manly’ life.)

“Every morning,” Tesla wrote, “regardless of weather, I would go from the Boulevard St. Marcel, where I resided, to a bathing house on the Seine, plunge into the water, loop the circuit twenty-seven times and then walk an hour to reach Ivry, where the Company's factory was located.”

Why 27 laps, you ask? Remember Tesla’s OCD around the number three and numbers divisible by 3.

The Edison Company in Paris was actual a group of related companies, modelled on how the Edison lighting companies were structured and organized in the United States: the Compagnie Continentale Edison (which controlled the patents); the Société Industrielle & Commerciale (which manufactured equipment); and the Société Electrique Edison (which installed the systems). Now, don’t worry too much about the French names—Tesla appears to have been employed primarily by the Société Electrique Edison, which for simplicity’s sake we will hereafter abbreviate as ‘SE Edison.’ Just remember that is the company concerned with the actual installation of the electric light systems.

I should also apologize for what I can only assume is my horribly inelegant pronunciation of the French names throughout this episode. I have nine years of Ontario public school French classes to blame. No doubt my pronunciation is, how you would say, le merde.

Because French law of the day required that inventions patented in France also be manufactured there, Edison had dispatched his closest associate, Charles Batchelor, to Paris in 1881 to organize the companies.

Batchelor was originally from Manchester, England and a “master mechanic” in his own right. He’d first met Edison on a business trip to the United States in 1870 and soon became his closest associate. He worked on the first phonographs and on perfecting the filament for the lightbulb, and ran Edison’s operations first in New Jersey and then in Europe. He owned a 10 percent share of Edison’s many worldwide companies, making him a very wealthy man indeed.

When Tesla joined the Edison companies, Batchelor had either built or bought a large factory (the sources disagree once again) in Ivry, on the outskirts of Paris, where Edison lamps and dynamos would be built for the European market. The plan was to erect central stations in the major cities for indoor lighting, as well as large outdoor arc lamp systems which were by then beginning to illuminate urban streets. Batchelor also had designs on his native England, where the Crystal Palace Exposition was then displaying Edison’s new incandescent lamp.

Tesla and his colleagues would travel to and help set up and service these facilities.

It was at the Edison works in Ivry where Tesla began to acquire, for the first time, practical engineering knowledge about dynamos and motors. To this point, he had relied mainly on mental engineering, visualizing in his mind how an AC motor might work in the ideal—reflecting his “idealist inventor” nature we spoke about back in Episode 0.

It’s important to remember that in these early days of what we would think of as electrical engineering, there really weren’t codified industrial standards or even best practices. The design and construction of electrical machines was based on trial and error and the craft knowledge of the men working on the devices.

So Tesla, for the first time, had to consider the proper proportions for the rotor and stator coils; plan the length and diameter of the coils, the gauge and number of turns of wire, and the speed of the machine’s rotation in order to secure a particular current output.

Tesla absorbed much of what was then known about dynamo and motor design from his time spent at SE Edition, and this put him in a position to start thinking about how to convert his ideal motor into a real machine.

While learning a great deal, Tesla also brought unique strengths to SE Edison. Though he hadn’t finished his degree, Tesla did have grounding in physics and mathematics from his time at Graz, whereas most of his colleagues had learned electrical machines by working either in the telegraph industry or in machine shops. The manager of SE Edison, R. W. Picou, soon recognized Tesla’s ability to apply theory and make calculations and put him to work designing dynamos for incandescent lighting systems.

Tesla was paid three hundred francs a month, which works out to $1400 US dollars today. This was a princely sum for the era, but we see here the first stirrings of the wild spending ways that would haunt Tesla for the rest of his life. As soon as Tesla got money he spent it. He had a taste for the finer things of life—fancy clothes, fine foods—and was also known to be extremely generous (particularly with his employees later in his career).

But we’re jumping ahead. For the moment, the wonders and possibilities of Paris offered plenty of ways to separate Nikola from his hard earned pay. “The income was spent as soon as received,” Telsa confessed in his autobiography. “When Mr. Puskas asked me how I was getting along…I [replied] ‘the last twenty-nine days of the month are the toughest!’”

Though working on Edison machines, Tesla didn’t abandon his own ideas while at Ivry. It’s unclear whether Tesla ever got to pitch Charles Batchelor his AC ideas directly (though I think it likely that he did at some point), but Tesla was disappointed to learn that Edison had a violent aversion to the mere mention of alternating current. Undeterred, he outlined his plans to Szigeti and a group of Edison men, drawing diagrams in the dirt with a stick as he had in the park back in Budapest. He outlined a new motor he’d been working on, in which “the generator produced three separate alternating currents that were delivered to the motor over six different wires.”

“My idea,” Tesla explained, “was that the more wires I used the more perfect would be the action of the motor.”

But the Edison men seemed unimpressed.

Much is made (rightly) of Edison’s own distaste for AC power systems and his intransigence when it came to change or admitting someone might have a better idea or system than his. It wasn’t called the ‘War of the Currents’ for nothing, after all (and we’ll get into all that in future episodes). So Edison’s own feelings must have trickled down through the company at least to some degree, and shouldn’t be discounted in why the Edison team wasn’t interested in Tesla’s AC motor. After all, the advantages of AC over Edison’s DC system were so obvious to Tesla that he could not believe anyone could or would ignore them.

But the Edison men were no dummies, and despite what some more conspiracy-minded fans of Tesla might tell you, at this point they certainly had no particular axe to grind with Tesla or with AC.

Yes, their ultimate superior wasn’t a fan of AC, but more immediately the mindset of early electrical engineers simply hadn’t caught up with Tesla’s vision yet. Their goal was to build and sell systems for electric lighting, not to transmit power to run electric motors. Remember electrically-powered machines were still almost novelties in these early days of the electricity industry. Coal and steam and (literal!) horse-power were far more common and efficient ways to generate power for industrial work. Commercial and domestic lighting schemes—that’s where the money was, thought most everyone. So why bother with an AC motor?

It was only four or five years later when companies finally began thinking about the commercial possibilities of generating power for lighting AND electric motors. Tesla, as so often happened, was ahead of the curve.

However, this mindset problem isn’t the only factor (or perhaps even the most important one). Because, from a commercial standpoint, Tesla’s six-wire plan had other drawbacks: to the mind of the Edison men, Tesla’s scheme used too much copper wire. Then (as now) copper wire is expensive, and the Edison companies actually spent a large part of the early 1880s developing distribution systems that used as little copper as possible in order to cut costs. The use of six wires for an AC system (where a three wire DC system would do just fine, thank you) seemed to make such a motor unnecessarily expensive to manufacture.

Now, electrical systems using AC can operate on higher voltages and hence have smaller conductors so the copper cost might not actually have ended up being an issue, but in 1882 it is unlikely that either Tesla or the Edison men would have understood this. More trial-and-error (as I mentioned earlier) would be needed before this fact was realized.

The Edison companies were in business to make money, and they had no incentive to pursue some expensive, unproven, visionary technology the way Tesla (who was so often disinterested in economic considerations) wanted to.

Only one Edison man, David Cunningham, an American supervisor at Ivry, seemed interested. Cunningham, Tesla recalled, offered to form a stock company around the idea. But to Tesla “the proposal seemed comical in the extreme. I did not have the faintest conception of what that meant except that it was an American way of doing things.”

As his friend, T. C. Martin would write of Tesla years later, “Mr. Tesla, then a youth of little worldly experience, would have sought an immediate opportunity to publish his ideas, believing them to be [a]…radical advance in electrical theory as well as destined to have a profound influence on all dynamo electric machinery.”

Here again we see Tesla the visionary, almost at the expense of all else. While he certainly had commercial ambitions of his own for his inventions, as we’ll see in later episodes, Tesla did come to see his inventions more and more as being for the benefit of all humanity, economic realities be damned. In some ways, this attitude—so key to the creative drive within him—would prove his undoing.

But, once again, we’re skipping ahead. For right now, Tesla was disappointed that no one at the Edison works seemed interested in championing his AC ideas, but was still a company man.

In the summer of 1882, Tesla was dispatched first to work on the lighting at the opera house in Paris, and then to Bavaria to help wire a theatre. In the autumn he helped lay underground cables for the new central station going up in Paris, and traveled to Berlin to install incandescent lighting at cafes there.

At the end of the year, Tesla “submitted to one of the administrators of the Company, Mr. Rau, a plan for improving their dynamos, and was given an opportunity.” Rau, the president of SE Edison, was soon impressed by Tesla’s innovations. Tesla was then tasked with developing automatic regulators, which were also well received.

Impressed by Tesla’s work, in April 1883 Batchelor dispatched him to Strasbourg in Alsace.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Strasbourg had changed from French to German hands, and after the war the Germans went on a building spree to reinforce their presence there. Among the new constructions was a central railroad station, which was to feature the fancy new incandescent electric lights.

SE Edison installed the system to much fanfare. Except, there was one hitch: it seems the generators coming from the Edison works in the United States had a bad habit of, well, exploding. Fires from faulty armatures and poor insulation were commonplace, and that led to, well…

Apparently one short-circuit happened at the grand opening of railroad station and blew out a large part of a wall, right in the presence of William I, King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany.


Understandably, the German authorities were…less than thrilled. Not wanting to be accused of attempting to assassinate the monarch, Batchelor sent Tesla.

“On account of my knowledge of the German language and past experience, I was entrusted with the difficult task of straightening out matters,” Tesla wrote.

From now on, all shipments from America would be tested for “two or three days with a [full electrical] load” to prevent such, umm, unfortunate occurrences, and this included the four generators and twelve hundred Edison lamps for installation at the Strasbourg railroad station.

Tesla remained in Strasbourg for the next twelve months.

It was here, over the summer of 1883, that Tesla finally built his first alternating-current induction motor. He set himself up in secret in a closet “in a mechanical shop opposite the railroad station,” where he could tap into the circuit of the Siemens AC generator included in the railway station’s electrical powerhouse.

Szigeti—who had come to Strasbourg as Tesla’s assistant—forged an iron disk for the motor, which Tesla mounted on a horizontal axle, surrounded with a coil.

It was “a crude apparatus,” as he later described it, but “It was,” Tesla claimed, “the simplest motor I could conceive of. As you see it had only one circuit, and no windings on the armature or the fields. It was of marvelous simplicity.”

Tesla's first AC motor (Strasbourg 1883)

Having constructed his long-awaited AC motor Tesla must have been positively giddy. Szigeti by his side, Tesla threw the switch and…

Nothing happened.

The disk that Szigeti had made didn’t turn in the electromagnetic field. It didn’t turn because Tesla had wound the stator coil around a brass core that couldn’t be magnetized.

As a quick fix, Tesla jammed a steel file in the coil. Now the alternating current produced a magnetic field in the steel file that in turn induced currents in the iron disk. But still the disk didn’t rotate.

Tesla, in the good old fashioned trial-and-error methods of the early days of electrical invention, tried the file in a number of different positions until he found one where the magnetic field in the file and the induced currents in the disk were opposite one another, their repelling action causing the disk to slowly rotate.

Now Tesla could be thrilled by his invention: “I finally had the satisfaction of seeing rotation effected by alternating currents of different phase, and without sliding contacts or commutator, as I had conceived a year before. It was an exquisite pleasure but not to compare with the delirium of joy following the first revelation.”

Why point out the struggles of Tesla’s early AC motor? Well, to counter O’Neill’s claim that Tesla never wrote a thing down and that his inventions worked the first time, every time.

And because it’s a turning point for Tesla. As we talked about before, prior to this Tesla lacked real world experience in the design and construction of electrical machines. Tesla learned in Strasbourg that, unlike in his idealized mental engineering, materials count—the core of the stator needed to be made of iron or steel, not brass. Even though Tesla himself later boasted he was able to design perfect machines in his head that would then run flawlessly when built, it is clear that, like all inventors he was mortal and encountered problems turning his ideal mental machines into working devices.

Tesla presented this new AC motor to his friend, Mr. Bauzin, the former mayor of Strasbourg, who tried his best to interest wealthy investors, but ultimately found no takers.


His work in Strassbourg complete, Tesla returned to Paris in February 1884, apparently expecting to receive a promised bonus from the Edison Company for solving the problems with the Strasbourg plant. However, the promised bonus never materialized—not the last time Tesla would have to deal with a phantom bonus.

It’s unclear whether after this slight Tesla resigned in anger, or whether he just sort to bit his tongue and kept soldiering on.

Either way, in the spring of 1884, Charles Batchelor was recalled to America by Edison in order to manage the Edison Machine Works in New York. Impressed by Tesla’s work on improving dynamos, Batchelor suggested Tesla go to America and continue his dynamo work for the Edison company there.

Now, the story that we get from O’Neill here is that Tesla arrived in America with a letter of introduction from Charles Batchelor to Thomas Edison which read, “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.”

Except that O’Neill—as he so often did—got it wrong.

In his biography of Tesla, Wizard, Marc Seifer points out that nowhere else in Batchelor’s correspondence with Edison is Tesla praised at all, let along so effusively. Batchelor does praise certain other of his employees, but if Tesla was truly one of two ‘great men’ that Batchelor had known you’d expect to find some other mention of it in his letters. And the chronology doesn’t fit either, since Batchelor had been back in the United States for at least three months prior to Tesla’s arrival. Why not just introduce him to Edison personally if he was that impressed with Tesla? So, it’s unlikely that the praise came from Batchelor.

Instead, W. Bernard Carlson has tracked this letter (or one very much like it) to Tivadar Puskás, one of the Puskás Brothers who had
first offered Tesla a job at the telephone exchange back in Budapest. In the course of his research, Carlson interviewed Barbara Puskás, a relative of the Puskás Brothers, who recalls a letter like this written by Tivadar in her family’s archives. So while not exactly a smoking gun, I feel like if this praise did happen we’re safe in thinking that it came from Puskás and not Batchelor.

So, letter in hand, it was off to America for Tesla.

But Tesla reports some difficulties in setting out, and since they seem like something right out of a slapstick comedy, I thought we
should include an appropriate sound track:

Selling nearly everything he owned, it was only once at the train station as the train was pulling out that Tesla—still on the platform—discovered he’d lost his money and tickets for both train and ocean liner.

Running alongside the train as it picked up speed, Tesla had only moments to decide what to do. So he jumped aboard and hoped for the best. He was apparently able to buy another ticket onboard with the change in his pocket, and then talked his way past some skeptical steamship officials and aboard the ship the City of Richmond when no one else showed up to claim his berth.

Tesla’s only baggage was a small bundle of clothes, some poems and articles he had written, and a package of calculations relating to solutions of what Tesla only described as “an unsolvable” mathematical problem, and plans for a flying machine he toyed with, off and on, for many years.

* * *
Next week, Tesla arrives in New York City, and finally meets the Wizard of Menlo Park… That's right: Ladies and gentlemen, the episode you've all been waiting for--Tesla vs Edison: Round 1!

Thanks for listening to this episode of Tesla: The Life and Times. Once again, if you’re enjoying the show please spread the word: tell a friend who you think might enjoy it, too, or share a link to the show via your social media.

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Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.

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005 – Tesla – A Walk in the Park (1882)

The solution to Tesla’s alternating current motor problem came to him as a ‘eureka’ moment during a walk in the park in 1882: the rotating magnetic field, and the induction motor. The applications of this innovation would literally change the world.

Read Show Notes & Transcript

Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times

EPISODE 5 – A Walk in the Park (1882)

Last time, we looked at a particularly rough and disappointing 5 years in the life of Nikola Tesla, when everything from school to his personal life seemed to fall apart.

This week, we look at the first few months of 1882: a brief stretch of time that was nonetheless fairly momentous in Tesla’s life, and were in many ways where things started to turn around for him. And as we’ll see in both this episode and the next, 1882 was a crucial year for the development of electric power and power systems.

Since our episode only looks at part of 1882, our look at history today will also look just at the first few months of 1882.


On January 2, in secret, the Standard Oil Trust is created to control multiple corporations set up by John D. Rockefeller and his associates.

On the same day, and definitely not in secret, Irish-born author Oscar Wilde arrives in the United States for an extended lecture tour; when asked by a customs official if he had anything to declare, he replied "I have nothing to declare but my genius.” It’s a good line, but that kind of stuff will get you tasered these days.

On January 12, the Holborn Viaduct power station in the City of London begins operation. It is the world's first coal-fired public electricity generating station.

In March, Robert Koch announces the discovery of the bacterium responsible for that scourge of Romantic poets, tuberculosis.

Elsewhere, Charles J. Guiteau is found guilty of the assassination of James A. Garfield (President of the United States) and sentenced to death, despite an insanity defense raised by his lawyer. He is hanged on June 30.

In March, Queen Victoria escapes an assassination attempt at Windsor—the eighth (and last) time over a 40 year period that someone tried to kill the queen.

Less successful in avoiding assassination that year was famed outlaw Jesse James, shot in the back of the head by the coward Robert Ford. I’m not sure how many times people had tried to kill Jesse James, but I feel confident in guessing that it was probably more times than people had tried to kill old Queen Vickie.

In April, the "Elektromote", the world's first trolleybus, begins operation in Berlin. It is powered by two 2.2 kW, 550 V DC electric motors. See what I mean? A big year for electricity—and it’s only April!

It was also a big year for classical music—or as it was known back then ‘music.’ In April, Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal debuts in Bavaria; and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture debuts in Moscow much to the delight of cannon aficionados everywhere.

Notable births in 1882 include:
• American gangsters Arnold Rothstein (who helped fix the 1919 World Series) and Johnny Torrio, a mentor to Al Capone, and for a time in the 1920s the biggest gangster in America
• English authors Virginia Woolf—who I’m not afraid of, by the way--and A. A. Milne (he of Winnie the Pooh fame), who were both born in January. Just missing joining them is Irish writer James Joyce (born February 2)
• On February 8, Thomas Selfridge was born. In 1908 Selfridge, a United States Army officer, would be the first person in history killed in an airplane crash
• Also born in 1882 was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would become the 32nd President of the United States, and another of the people who would help save Western civilization in the 20th Century

1882 proved a difficult year for American letters, as it saw in March the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and in April the death of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And I’d like to highlight in particular somebody who doesn’t get enough acclaim: Mr. George Jennings, who passed away on April 17, 1882, aged 80. George Jennings was an English sanitary engineer and plumber who invented the first public flush toilets. As a father of two small children who without fail, no matter how many times you ask them, don’t have to go to the potty before you leave the house, but sure have to go in an emergency as soon as you go basically anywhere outside the house, I am deeply grateful to George Jennings for his innovation. It was a crappy job, but somebody had to do it.

When we left off last time, Tesla had just recovered from a serious bout of depression, which seems to have included some kind of sensory-overload component. His friend, Anthony Szigeti, had helped Tesla regain his health and strength in part by encouraging him to exercise, particularly by taking long walks around the city.

They would often walk in the Városliget (City Park), and this is where we find them as we begin this week

In his 1919 autobiography, Tesla recounts how the solution to his alternating current motor problem came to him during one of these walks as a ‘eureka’ moment. There they were, he and Szigeti, walking through the park at sunset discussing Tesla’s ideas for an improved motor (Tesla gives no specific date, though it is believed to have been sometime in February 1882). Inspired by the sunset, Tesla began reciting from Goethe’s Faust, his favorite poem:

See how the setting sun, with ruddy glow,
The green-embosomed hamlet fires.

He sinks and fades, the day is lived and gone.

He hastens forth new scenes of life to waken.
O for a wing to lift and bear me on,
And on to where his last rays beckon.

“As I uttered these inspiring words,” he wrote in his autobiography, “the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagrams shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers…The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal and stone, so much so that I told [Szigeti]: "See my motor here; watch me reverse it.”… Pygmalion seeing his statue come to life could not have been more deeply moved. A thousand secrets of nature which I might have stumbled upon accidentally I would have given for that one which I had wrestled from her against all odds and at the peril of my existence.”

Tesla certainly had a flair for the dramatic.

So what exactly had Tesla seen?

In short: the rotating magnetic field, which would allow for the development of what came be known as the induction motor.
The applications of this innovation would literally change the world.

Now, as I think I said in the first episode, it’s not my goal or desire with this podcast to dwell on the nitty-gritty technical details of Tesla’s inventions. I’m much more interested in their societal impacts.

However, since the AC induction motor with its rotating magnetic fields was the heart of Tesla’s innovation and of the AC system that would eventually go on the power the world, well, it seems like perhaps in this case we ought to make an exception and spend a bit of time trying to understand just what the big deal was about this new motor from a technical point of view.

So to begin, the rotating magnetic fields.

Tesla’s first breakthrough was to envision the use of two circuits in a motor instead of the typical single circuit to transmit electricity. Doing so generated dual electrical currents ninety degrees out of phase with each other. This gives rise to the induction motor, which relies on small speed differences (called slip) between the rotating magnetic field and the motor’s rotor shaft speed to induce current in the wires wound around the rotor.

So why are rotating magnetic fields so useful? Well, if you’ve ever tried to push together the positive ends of two magnets (or the two negative ends, for that matter) you’ve experienced the repulsive force of magnetism. Flip one magnet around, and the positive and negative poles of the magnets almost seem to reach out across the intervening space and pull themselves together. It is this principle that the AC motor relies on: the repulsive and attractive magnetic forces between the rotor and stator mean that the receiving magnet rotates in space, attracting a steady stream of electrons—and electrons equal electricity!—with the positive and negative poles of the magnetic fields pushing and pulling each other as they spin round and round.

This is all a bit hard to visualize, so I’ve put up a link in the show notes to a very helpful YouTube video that explains this way better than I’m able.

So the constant flow of electricity allows the motor to generate torque, which is capable of driving a given load at a given speed, depending on the size and power of the motor.

Okay—then on to the motor itself:

Tesla’s radical departure here (as I’ve hinted at for a couple of episodes) was in getting rid of an electric motor’s commutator. So what is a commutator and why would you want to get rid of it in the first place?

A commutator is a moving part of a rotating electrical switch in direct current motors. Its job is to periodically reverse the current direction between the rotor and the external circuit, changing it from alternating current to direct current. It consists of a cylinder or rings with multiple metal contact segments—called "brushes”—which provide a pathway for the movement of electricity on a rotating armature.

Are you with me so far?

And it is these metal contact brushes that really make the commutator a problem, as it robs the motor of efficiency in a number of ways.
Early machines, in particular, used brushes made from copper wire. These hard metal brushes tended to scratch and groove the smooth commutator segments, and the commutator eventually required resurfacing. As friction wore down the copper, the metallic dust and broken bits of copper brush wedged between commutator segments, causing shorts and reducing efficiency. Likewise, resistance between the brushes and the commutator can cause a voltage drop which can mean large power losses in low voltage, high current machines. And friction itself also robs some of the energy of the machine as the brush rubs against the commutator.

The switching action of the commutator causes sparking at the contacts, generating electromagnetic interference. And there is also a physical limit to maximum current density and voltage that can be switched with a commutator. Very large direct current machines, say, more than several megawatts rating, simply can’t be built with commutators. The largest motors and generators you find these days are all alternating-current machines.

Again, I’ll post some helpful YouTube video in this week’s show notes—one an explanation of DC motors and one a demo of a polyphase induction motor made out of a coffee can! When you watch the AC video, image the central shaft transferring that motion to machinery that could do work and when you scale it up (and not build it out of a coffee can) you get a sense of the power of an AC motor and the work it can do.

So really, while DC motors have their uses (even today) they face a lot of technical hurdles in both size and efficiency. Tesla’s innovation did away with all of these limits when it did away with the commutator.

Tesla had at last refuted Professor Poeschl from the Polytechnic School in Graz, who had (as you might recall from a few episodes ago) declared that it was impossible to build an AC motor without a commutator. “Mr. Tesla may do many things,” he had said, “but this he cannot accomplish.”

Well, take that Professor Poeschl!

Now, we’re jumping ahead a bit here: remember, at this point Tesla is still standing in the park with his friend, doodling in the dirt. It would be years before he had a working motor, or before he had even fully worked out the implications of his flash of insight.
Because despite his contention about the depth of his insight that day in Tesla’s own autobiographical account of this moment, it’s likely we’re seeing some of his later embellishment of his own genius and accomplishments. Why should we think so?

Well, the 1919 autobiography is a dramatic account, yes. But in sworn patent testimony given in 1903, Tesla mentioned nothing about having a eureka moment in the park, even though it would have been to his legal advantage to have established the moment of invention was in 1882.

Instead, and contradicting the myth of Tesla the genius who never wrote anything down and whose inventions worked the first time every time, Tesla’s patent testimony suggests that like any other mere mortal it actually took him time to work out his ideas.
Now, here’s one place that I think we need to correct a myth about Tesla: the idea you hear sometimes that Tesla “invented” alternating current. And I think this has more to do with a misunderstanding on our part today of the state of scientific knowledge in 1882, and probably some confusion that because Tesla invented the first practical AC system that means he invented or discovered alternating current itself. Not so.

That credit rightly belongs to English scientist Michael Faraday, who began experiments in 1831 that led him to the discovery of electromagnetic induction, which is the basis of the alternating current induction motor. Within a year of Faraday’s discovery, the first electric dynamo producing alternating current was built in France (albeit on a small, experimental scale).

So Tesla didn’t invent or discover alternating current. And he wasn’t even the first person to come up with a working, commerical AC motor: five years earlier, in 1878, Elihu Thomson built an AC generator used to power an arc light system in the United States.
Around this same time two Europeans, Gaulard and Gibbs, produced the first alternating-current transformer. George Westinghouse, an early advocate of AC who would later play an important role in bringing the Tesla AC system to America and then the world, bought the American rights to the Gaulard and Gibbs patents for the princely sum of $50,000 (about $1.2 million dollars today).

This system was even installed in Great Barrington, Massachusetts by William Stanley, Westinghouse’s head engineer. But neither the Thomson generator nor the Gaulard-Gibbs invention did away with the commutator, which was the whole point of Tesla’s design.
The fact was, none of these other systems had the simple elegance of Tesla’s motor. Most used only a single circuit, just as in DC motors, and either didn’t work or worked poorly.

And, as sometimes happens in the history of discovery and innovation, Tesla wasn’t even the only person to come up with an alternating current induction motor in the early 1880s. Such a motor—which did do away with the commutator, as Tesla’s did—was independently invented by Galileo Ferraris in Italy. Of course, the two men were completely unaware of one another’s work—it was literally a case of great minds thinking alike.

Ferraris demonstrated a working model of his single-phase induction motor in 1885, and Tesla built his working two-phase induction motor in 1887, demonstrating it a year later before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. In 1888, Ferraris published his research to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Turin; at the same time, Tesla was already being granted a US patent for his motor.


It’s unlikely that Tesla understood everything about his AC motor that day in the park, including how to actually use two or more alternating currents, or how exactly a rotating magnetic field could be used in a motor. At this point, Tesla still had no practical firsthand experience building electrical machines, and he wouldn’t actually build his first AC motor prototype until a year later in Strasbourg. So his vision was incomplete—but he knew enough to know that he was on to something big, and that it involved upending the received wisdom and the standard practice of his day, a maverick style that was to be a hallmark of Tesla the inventor.

Because that, at last, is what he really was.

In practice that day in the park nothing had changed for Tesla: he was still working as draftsman in the Central Telegraph Office of the Hungarian Government and making only just enough to get by. But in another sense, and perhaps the only one that really matters, everything had changed for him. He was truly and at last an inventor.

“This was the one thing I wanted to be,” he recalled. “Archimedes was my ideal. I admired the works of artists, but to my mind they were only shadows and semblances. The inventor, I thought, gives the world creations which are palpable, which live and work.”


“For a while,” Tesla writes in his autobiography, “I gave myself up entirely to the intense enjoyment of picturing machines and devising new forms. It was a mental state of happiness about as complete as I have ever known in life. Ideas came in an uninterrupted stream and the only difficulty I had was to hold them fast. The pieces of apparatus I conceived were to me absolutely real and tangible in every detail, even to the minute marks and signs of wear. I delighted in imagining the motors constantly running, for in this way they presented to mind's eye a more fascinating sight…In less than 2 months I evolved virtually all the types of motors and modifications of the system which are now identified with my name.”

Again, I think it improbable that Tesla had worked out in his mind 100% all of the devices and systems which would later spin out of his initial AC motor idea. But I think he understood in part (or perhaps even just intuitively) not only single-phase motors (those with two separate circuits), but also polyphase induction motors (using three or more circuits out of phase with each other), split-phase induction, and polyphase synchronous motors (which unlike induction motors used magnetic fields that were, well, synchronized), as well as the whole polyphase and single-phase motor system for generating, transmitting, and utilizing electric current.

Because the discovery of how to effectively harness the rotating magnetic field was just a fraction of Tesla’s creation. To this point in the history of the young technology, electricity had to be generated locally and because it was DC power it could only be transmitted about a mile or so before it was too weak to be useful. So electric lighting was almost a novelty, as power couldn’t be produced or carried economically when a power station was required every two miles.

This DC power system was the system that Edison championed and Edison (being Edison) tended toward inflexibility when it came to his ideas and innovations.

We’ll get into some of the lengths he would go to in order to defend his system and try to take down AC power later on in the series when we discuss the War of the Currents, but for right now trust me: he was emotionally (and financially) locked into DC power as ‘the’ system.

But Edison’s carbon filament light bulbs could use either AC or DC power—the light bulbs didn’t care. And after Tesla’s innovation, vastly higher voltages were available via the use of alternating current, meaning that electrical power could be transmitted hundreds of miles for the first time, and not just for lighting but for running the household appliances and industrial machines that would follow in later years. Tesla’s creation was part of a technological revolution and in time practically all electricity in the world would be generated, transmitted, distributed, and turned into mechanical power by means of the Tesla Polyphase System.


While working in the Central Telegraph Office of the Hungarian Government, Tesla soon got noticed by the Inspector-in-Chief and began to be assigned new duties and responsibilities, including working out calculations, designs and cost estimates of new installations.

While in Budapest, Tesla also spent time essentially just hanging out (it’s unclear whether he was ever actually employed) at the manufacturing works of Ganz & Company.

Founded in 1844 by Abraham Ganz, the company had begun as an iron foundry but by 1882 had diversified into a number of other areas, including building and installing power systems for both arc and incandescent lamps. Reminds me a bit of Nokia, the Finnish company that started as a pulp mill, and now 150 years later focuses on large-scale telecommunications infrastructures and mobile phones.

For Tesla, the Ganz works must have been a kind of playground, and he learned much about AC power systems during his time there.

Once, when a ring transformer at the Ganz works was being powered by an AC generator, Tesla placed a metal ball on the transformers’ wooden housing. The ball began to spin. Because the wires in the coils were wound differently from one another they produced two different alternating currents, generating a rotating magnetic field. Here was confirmation of the hunch Tesla had had while walking in the park: alternating current could create the rotating magnetic field he needed for his motor.

From then on, the spinning ball and ring transformer became a key way that Tesla demonstrated his ideas. Whenever he had the chance to experiment with his new motor, he would place different metal objects in the field generated by a similar ring, watching as they spun in the rotating magnetic field.

When at last the Telephone Exchange started up—you remember, the whole reason Tesla had moved to Budapest in the first place?—he was hired on as ‘chief electrician,’ which we would think of as an electrical engineer these days. He later credited the knowledge and practical experience gained during his time at the exchange as being incredibly valuable to his inventive faculties.

In his autobiography he describes making improvements to various of the exchange’s apparatus, including what would have been the world’s first telephone amplifier (though Tesla never made any patent filing, nor did he try to publish details of his device in any technical journal).

But once the exchange was up and running it wasn’t long before the whole operation was sold off. Ferenc Puskas, the friend of the Tesla family who had originally hired Nikola, asked if he wanted a job helping run the new Edison lighting company in Paris. Tesla gladly accepted, as did his friend Szigeti.

Paris, Tesla must have thought, would be the perfect place to launch his AC motor on the world.

* * *

Next time, Tesla becomes a trusted fixer at the Edison works in Paris, and is dispatched all over Europe to troubleshoot Edison electrical systems. He will also acquire, for the first time, practical engineering knowledge about the craft of designing and building dynamos and motors that will be invaluable to him a few years later when he strikes out on his own. And we’ll see again hints of a pattern that will dominate Tesla’s later life: his inability to budget or handle money, as he quickly discovers all the many ways that Paris has to separate him from his pay cheque…


Thanks for listening to this episode of Tesla: The Life and Times. If you’re enjoying the show please spread the word: tell a friend who you think might enjoy it, too, or share a link to the show via your social media.

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Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.

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004 – Tesla – Frustrated Montage Years 1878-1882

If Tesla’s life were a movie, these would be the “montage years”–five years edited down into a few minutes (probably with melancholy music playing underneath) showing us that things didn’t work out for our hero for a long time until his big break came at the end of Act 1.

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Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times

EPISODE 4 – The Frustrated Montage Years (1878 – 1882)

Our last episode looked at one of the more surprising aspects of Tesla’s life: the fact that after a promising start, he flunked out of university and received no degree in electrical engineering, or any other field for that matter.

This week, we’ll look at what I think of as Tesla’s “montage years”--by which I mean if his life were a movie, this would be the part where five years was edited down into a few minutes (probably with melancholy music playing underneath) to convey the fact that things didn’t work out for our hero for a long time until his big break came at the end of Act 1.

So our montage begins in 1878:

In January 1878, The Yale News became the first daily college newspaper in the United States.
Pope Pius IX dies in February, after a 31 ½ year reign--the longest pontificate in history. He is succeeded 13 days later by Vincenzo Pecci, who takes the name Leo XIII. He would hold the office for 25 years, making him #2 on longest reigning popes list until he was passed over 100 years later by John Paul II.
Also in February, Thomas Edison patents the phonograph. 123 years later, one mild-mannered graduate student would earn a Master degree thanks in part to a thesis on Edison and his phonograph.
In May, Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore debuts in London. It will have a first run of 571 performances.
In June in California, Eadweard Muybridge produces the sequence of stop-motion still photographs Sallie Gardner at a Gallop. A predecessor of the silent film, the famous series of photographs demonstrated conclusively for the first time that all four hooves of a galloping horse are off the ground at the same time.
Also in California, the poet and Wild West outlaw calling himself "Black Bart" makes his last clean getaway when he steals a safe box containing $400 dollars and a diamond ring, from a Wells Fargo stagecoach. The empty strong box is found later with a taunting poem inside. Sadly, I’ve been unable to find the text of this taunting poem. I’m going to assume it begins “There once was a man from Nantucket…”
August sees the foundation of the Salvation Army.
Cleopatra's Needle is erected in London in late September, having arrived in England all the way back in January.
October sees the world's first recorded floodlit soccer (or, football) match played at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, England.
Also in 1878, yellow fever in the Mississippi Valley kills over 13,000 people.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, America's oldest university press, is founded.
Leo Tolstoy publishes Anna Karenina.
And in the United States, Remington introduces their No. 2 typewriter, the first with a shift key enabling you to type lower case as well as upper case characters. Handy. For the first time in history, you’re able to type a letter to someone without seeming like you’re shouting at them…

Notable births in 1878 include:

French automobile manufacturer André Citroën;
famed American actor Lionel Barrymore (probably best well-known for his role as Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, and for being member of the Barrymore family of actors—a family which also includes actress Drew Barrymore);
Irish baron and author Edward Plunkett, aka Lord Dunsany was born—I recommend his fantasy novel The King of Elfland's Daughter;
American writer, Upton Sinclair;
and last (but not least), Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known to history as Joseph Stalin.

Notable deaths include:
Julius von Mayer, German physician and physicist and one of the founders of thermodynamics;
and French scientist Antoine César Becquerel, pioneer in the study of electric and luminescent phenomena. He is grandfather of the physicist Henri Becquerel, Nobel Laureate, and one of the discoverers of radioactivity.

Fun fact for today: Antoine César Becquerel’s name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

And your second fun fact for today: apparently the Eiffel Tower has names inscribed on it.

We left off last week at the end of 1877 when, for all intents and purposes, Tesla disappeared.

For months, neither his family nor his friends knew what happened to him. In fact, some of his friends from university speculated that he had drowned in the Mur River, his body swept away, as being the only explanation for his sudden and unexplained disappearance.

In fact, Tesla was alive and well in the city of Maribor (now in Slovenia), where he’d arrived in the late spring of 1878. No one is sure quite why he ended up in Maribor after leaving Austria, but there he took a job as a draftsman for a local engineering firm.

Now, as I mentioned briefly last week, Tesla and his first biographer O’Neill give a very different account of this time than what later research and records have revealed.

According to them, Tesla chose to forgo a return to the University of Prague in the fall of 1878 and instead accepted a “lucrative position” as a draftsman in Maribor. He was paid sixty florins a month and a separate bonus for the completed work, which they say was very generous compensation compared with the prevailing wages—I’ve been unable to verify just how lucrative this kind of pay was for the place and time. If any of you out there have a sense, please let me know. During this year, they said that Tesla lived very modestly and saved his earnings.

However, the picture that emerges in later biographies, archival records, and stories passed down from within the Tesla family paints a different picture.

As mentioned last time, it appears now that Tesla flunked out of school after not completing his exams, and so rather than choosing not to return in the fall of 1878, Tesla was no longer welcome at the university. His sudden disappearance, and his severing of all contact with both family and friends was likely due to shame: not speaking to anyone being far easier than having to explain that he’d dropped out of school after his parents (and his father especially) had worked so hard to get him access to the education he’d longed for.

I also find it interesting that Tesla took a job as a draftsman, given how much he’d hated his classes in drawing. Was this a job he took out of desperation, I wonder? I wish I knew whether 60 florins was a lot…

When not at the drafting table, Tesla spent his spare time playing cards, either in a pub called Happy Peasant or with local men on the streets (something of a local custom in Maribor, apparently).

At this point, our sources conflict: according to some, Tesla’s job as a draftsman was short-lived and he soon began travelling again, making his way first to the city of Zagreb, in the northwest of the country, and from there to the small coastal village of Min-Gag. Other sources keep him in Maribor, gambling away his idle hours.

Whatever Tesla’s exact itinerary, by March 1879 the jig was up. Tesla’s father Milutin—alerted by a friend who had seen the younger Tesla in Maribor—finally caught up with his son and sat him down for a heart to heart.

The more I learn about this father-son relationship the more fascinated I become. Theirs was obviously a very fraught relationship, and I would love to know more about just how this conversation went.

Were there angry recriminations? “How could you just disappear like that? Do you have any idea what you’ve put your mother and I through?” “What do you mean you flunked out—you said you’d die if you didn’t go to university?”

Smug “I told you sos” about the priesthood being a better destiny for young Tesla?

Or was it more tender than that? Understanding and sympathy from a father to a son who had apparently failed at his one true dream and who was hurting badly?

On this, our sources are silent.

What is clear is that Tesla refused to return to Graz or the university there.

On the details of exactly what happened next, again, our sources conflict:

Seifer says that during their heart-to-heart in Maribor, Milutin offered his son a solution: the young Tesla would make a fresh start at another university. According to this version of events they returned together to the family home at Gospić.

But, as with so many things about Tesla's early life, there is another version of the story.

Cheney and Carlson both say that only a few weeks later, on March 24, 1879, Tesla was forcibly returned to Gospić under police guard for not having a residence permit. This version of events is further backed up by Tesla's nephew (and namesake), Nikola Trbojevich, who says he was told by other family members that Tesla was deported (and I quote) “because of playing cards and leading an irregular life.”

Now, the phrase “irregular life” is a loaded one, to be sure. Maybe the local authorities felt Tesla some kind of rabble rouser, or degenerate gambler. Some have speculated that in addition to his gambling, Tesla was a carousing womanizer. Or “Irregular life” could be code for homosexual relationships that Tesla may have had (speculating about Tesla's sexuality is a bit of a cottage industry within Tesla biographies, and we'll do our own speculating in a later episode—so sit tight).

Whatever the actual cause, the fallout for Tesla was immediate. Not only had he washed out of university, but according to his roommate, Tesla’s “cousins, who had been sending him money, withdrew their aid.”

However it was that he came home finally, by the early spring of 1879, Tesla had returned to Gospić and rejoined his family. He even began (perhaps as a condition of his return) to once again attend church to hear his father’s sermons. There he met Anna. She was “tall and beautiful [with] extraordinary understandable eyes.” For the first and only time in his life, Tesla would say, “I fell in love.” They took strolls by the river or trips back to Smiljan, where they would talk about the future. He wanted to become an electrical engineer; she wanted a family.

But within mere weeks of Tesla’s return tragedy struck: on April 17th, 1879 his father Milutin died suddenly of unspecified causes (some sources say a short illness, others a stroke). He was 59 years old.

The following day, he was given a "funeral liturgy fit for a saint," according to Tesla.

It is telling, I think, that in his autobiography while Tesla does discuss his mother’s death (which happened many years later), he makes no mention of his father’s death. It seems theirs was a strained relationship, to the very end.

For the rest of 1879, Tesla kicked around Gospić. It’s unclear whether he felt any special obligation now as the man of the family, or to looking after the support of his mother and sisters.

Tesla's sister Angelina was already married (her first child, Tesla's nephew and namesake Nikola Trbojević was born this same year) so perhaps she and her husband stepped in to look after Georgina and the other Tesla children.

During that year, Tesla taught a large class of students in his old school, Higher Real Gymnasium, in Gospić alongside his former fellow student, Mojsije Medić, who recounts that Tesla didn’t want teaching to be his fate.

It’s worth pointing out that none of this is mentioned in Tesla’s autobiography, or in O’Neill’s Prodigal Genius. Now, while self-serving, this is sort of understandable: Tesla would likely have been embarrassed about this period of his early life: flunking out of school and getting run out of town on a rail aren’t usually high points for anyone. However, it also shows that Tesla can be an unreliable narrator of his own life, and that his account of events needs to be read critically, and compared against other sources (particularly later biographies and research).

Whatever his later report of events, Tesla’s discontent with life in Gospic must have been evident enough to those around him at the time: because by January of 1880, two of Tesla's uncles, Petar and Pavle, put together enough money to help him leave Gospić for Prague, where he was to study.

Not for the last time in life, Tesla chose his work and career over love. He had been involved with Anna for some months by this point and he promised to write her when he was away in Prague. It’s unclear how committed Tesla was to this promise however, as soon after his departure for school the relationship dissolved, with Anna marrying another not long afterward. We’ll revisit Tesla’s feelings about the role of love in an inventor’s life in later episodes.

Arriving in Prague, Tesla discovered that he was too late to enroll at Charles-Ferdinand University. Even if Tesla had arrived early enough, however, he would have not been permitted to enroll as he had never taken Greek and did not speak or write Czech—both requirements of admission. How or why he chose this particular school is unclear: Tesla claims that it was his father’s wish before he died that Nikola go to this school and complete his education. However, Tesla’s nephew again relates a family story that Tesla’s father wasn’t speaking with his son before he died…so who know why he ended up in Prague?

What we do know is that Tesla lived at 13 Smeckach St. and spent most of his time at the Klementinum Library and Narodni Kavarna (People's Cafe) on Vodickova St.

Toward the end of the 20th Century, a search was made by the government of Czechoslovakia to determine which of the four universities in the country Tesla enrolled in. But no record was found of Tesla being enrolled at any of them.

Instead, Tesla audited courses in philosophy, geometry, physics, and advanced mathematics. And he studied in the library, keeping abreast of progress in electrical engineering. But he received no grades and took no degree…and makes no mention of this in his autobiography.

Now, there’s certainly no shame in being self-taught: many notables throughout history have been, including Tesla’s predecessor in electrical engineering, Michael Faraday. And Tesla’s later accomplishments certainly demonstrate that he didn’t seem to suffer much for a lack of credentials. But for a variety of reasons (likely including social and economic ones, as well as personal pride and his own myth-making), Tesla chose to gloss over the fact that he held no degree in his own account of his life (people would often refer to him as ‘Dr. Tesla’ in later years—after all, if anyone was going to hold a PhD it was going to be Tesla, right?—and it’s unclear whether Tesla ever bothered correcting them).

In his autobiography, Tesla does credit his time in Prague with helping him make an advance in his problem of how to craft a better A/C motor: this consisted in detaching the commutator from the machine, placing it on separate supports away from the frame of the motor, perhaps thinking that by increasing the distance he could overcome the well-known sparking caused by the commutator. His plan didn’t work, and no breakthroughs were made, but it did help Tesla to better understand DC motors and to feel that progress was being made despite lack of tangible results.

There is some suggestion that Tesla continued gambling during this time in order to keep in funds, but it’s unclear. He had earlier vowed to his mother to swear off gambling, but who knows really?

And his funds were beginning to dwindle by the end of that year. His uncles would only support him so long as a student, so Tesla resolved to head for Budapest.

You may at this point, after a few episodes of this podcast, be sensing a theme: the conflicting accounts of the hows and whys of Tesla’s actions and choices in his early life. Once again, our various sources and biographies give different accounts of just why Tesla chose Budapest and how he came to work for the Budapest Telephone Exchange once he got there.

Some suggest that he chose Budapest almost on a whim, having read in a Prague newspaper that local businessmen had received permission from Thomas Edison to build a telephone exchange there.

Other sources claim it was at the urging of his uncle, Pajo (who was, presumably, getting tired of paying for Tesla’s schooling) that Nikola move to Hungary and get a job. It turns out the telephone exchange was being set up and run by an old army buddy of Pajo, and he could get Nikola a job.

And still other sources say that it was Tesla himself who deduced this connection and asked his uncle for the introduction.

However he came to choose Budapest, Tesla arrived there in January 1881 only to discover to his dismay that the telephone exchange wasn’t yet in operation and that there was no job for him. Without the financial backing of his uncles Tesla was in a desperate spot. He once again took a position as a draftsman, this time with the Hungarian Central Telegraph Office. The salary was meagre and Tesla found much of the work boring, involving more routine drafting and calculation than he liked.
So, somewhat recklessly, Tesla quit and vowed to make his way in the world as an inventor.

It…didn’t really work out. In fact the disappointment at his lack of quick success (and probably the stress of living in what must surely have been poverty) took its toll on Tesla’s mental health. Not for the last time in his life, Tesla suffered a total mental and emotional collapse: what he describes in his autobiography as a “complete breakdown of the nerves.”

Now, Tesla would always lay claim to extraordinarily acute senses (and reading his own description in his autobiography its again hard not to see some of his boastfulness as further myth-making about himself): he claimed that as a child he had several times saved neighbours from house fires because he was awakened by the crackling of flames before anyone else. During his experiments in Colorado Springs in 1899 Tesla (then over forty) claimed he could hear thunder at a distance of 550 miles, while the limit for his young assistants was 150 miles.

But during his breakdown he described physical effects that are, to be honest, a bit hard to believe: he could hear the ticking of a watch three rooms away; flies landed with a dull thud to his ear; carriages passing miles away shook his whole body; distant train whistles caused unbearably painful vibrations. He felt like the ground under him was constantly trembling. He placed rubber cushions under his bed to ease his sleeping.

Passing under a bridge left Tesla with a crushing pressure on his skull. Rays of sunlight struck him with physical force. In darkness, he could sense an object up to 12 feet away via a (quote) “peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead.”

His pulse raced up to 260 beats per minute. His flesh twitched and trembled uncontrollably.

Tesla was convinced he was dying.

Lest we get too concerned, at the end of this passage in his autobiography, Tesla wanted to let us know that he was fine:

“Can anyone believe that so hopeless a physical wreck could ever be transformed into a man of astonishing strength and tenacity, able to work 38 years almost without a day's interruption, and find himself still strong and fresh in body and mind? Such is my case.”

A little more myth-making, as we’ll see in later episodes.

However, back to Tesla’s death bed…

A new friend, Anthony Szigeti, took it upon himself to aid Tesla’s convalescence. Szigeti was a master mechanic with whom Tesla often worked, and an athlete—reputed to be the strongest man in Hungary. Tesla described him as having a “big head with an awful lump on one side and a sallow complexion [that] made him distinctly ugly, but from the neck down his body might have served for a statue of Apollo.”

He dragged Tesla from his room, and much in the way that modern treatment for depression includes an emphasis on exercise and fitness, Szigeti made Tesla exercise, especially through vigorous walks through the city.

And gradually, Tesla’s malady passed. In later years, he credited Szigeti with literally saving his life.

Able to return to work, Tesla claimed his determination to crack the mysteries of alternating current had returned with a vengeance:

“When I undertook the task it was not with a resolve such as men often make,” he writes of that time. “With me it was a sacred vow, a question of life and death. I knew that I would perish if I failed.… Back in the deep recesses of the brain was the solution, but I could not yet give it outward expression.”

* * *

Next time, Tesla goes for a walk in the park…and changes the world.

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003 – Big Man on Campus 1874 – 1877

Tesla goes on the lamb not once but twice, with a bit of schooling and a bit of gambling and at least one brush with death keeping him busy in between.

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Hi. I’m Stephen Kotowych. Welcome to Tesla: The Life and Times

EPISODE 3 – Big Man on Campus (1874 - 1877)

Last time, we looked at Tesla’s early schooling, as well as a couple of traumatic relocations, and we got a glimpse into some of his thinking about the world and human nature that would shape Tesla’s outlook and work for the rest of his life. This week, Tesla goes on the lamb not once but twice, with a bit of schooling and a bit of gambling and at least one brush with death keeping him busy in between.

It was 1874 when we left off.

On January 1 of that year, New York City annexed The Bronx. That same year, the Young Men's Hebrew Association in Manhattan was founded. It continues to operate today as the 92nd Street Y.

Walter Clopton Wingfield patented a game called "sphairistike" which (thankfully) becomes more commonly known as tennis.

For you footie fans out there: the Dresden English Football Club is founded, first soccer club on the European mainland.

In Paris, in the spring, a critical review of an exhibition by a group of young painters gives their movement a name: Impressionism – after Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise.

In May, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis receive a U.S. patent for blue jeans with copper rivets. The price is $13.50 per dozen.

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter (also known as the Remington No. 1), with cylindrical platen and QWERTY keyboard, is first marketed in the United States. It could print only upper-case letters and was a "blind writer", meaning the typist could not see what was being written as it was entered. Nevertheless, it became the first commercially successful typewriter, as the new communication technologies and expanding businesses of the late 19th century created a need for fast, legible correspondence. The typewriter is credited with assisting the entrance of women into the workplace, as many were hired to operate the new devices (as we'll see in a later episode, Tesla had some thought on this shift of women outside the home).

On July 14, the Great Chicago Fire burned down 47 acres of the city, destroying 812 buildings, and killing 20.

Also in July, Mathew Evans and Henry Woodward file a Canadian patent for the first incandescent lamp with an electric light bulb, four years before Thomas Edison even began his research into incandescent lighting. The Evans-Woodward lamp consisted of carbon rods mounted in a nitrogen-filled glass cylinder. However, they were unsuccessful at commercializing their lamp, and sold rights to their patent to Thomas Edison in 1879.

In November, Harper's Weekly publishes a cartoon by Thomas Nast which is the first use of an elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party in the United States.

John Ernst Worrell Keely demonstrates his "induction resonance motion motor", a perpetual motion machine which eventually turns out to be a fraud.

And English chemist C. R. Alder Wright synthetizes heroin for the first time.

1874 was a particularly busy year for historically significant births. Born were:
Robert W. Service, a British-Canadian poet known as "the Bard of the Yukon," and best remembered for his poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
William Somerset Maugham, a British playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the world’s highest-paid author during the 1930s.
Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton
Thomas John Watson Sr., early computing pioneer and chairman and CEO of IBM from 1914 to 1956.
Famed short stop Honus Wagner
Magician and escape artist Harry Houdini
American poet Robert Frost
Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tut (and later died of the mummy's curse—I mean of completely natural causes!)
G. K. Chesterton, English author of both mystery novels and Catholic devotionals
Herbert Hoover, who would become 31st President of the United States and blunder his way through the early years of the Great Depression
Gustav Holst, English composer best known for his work 'The Planets'
And Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and one of the people who saved Western civilization in the mid-20th Century. I have a lot of respect for Churchill, and he's one of the people I've got my eye on for a Life & Times podcast someday...
Also born in 1874 was Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, who history remembers as the inventor of radio. Marconi will feature again later in this podcast when we talk about Tesla's own patents for wireless and how they were infringed by Marconi, but for now before you jump to any conclusions about him, remember: Marconi is the great-grandson of the guy who founded Irish whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons, so he can't be all bad.

A little closer to home for me, three notable Canadians:
First, and sharing a birthday with Churchill, Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables stories. When my family visted Prince Edward Island we were sure to visit Green Gables, her old house which is now part of a national park. Perhaps someday, if this podcast is a big enough hit, my house, too, will be made in to a national park...
William Lyon Mackenzie King, 10th and longest-serving Prime Minister of Canada, spending a total of 21 years, 154 days as PM in 3 majority & 3 minority governments between 1921 and 1948. Term limits, schmirm-limits. He is best known for his leadership of Canada throughout the Second World War and for his habit of sitting on park benches conversing with the ghost of his dead mother. No foolin'--look it up.
And perhaps most importantly: in December 1874, James Lewis Kraft was born. He was an entrepreneur and inventor, and was the first to patent processed cheese. God bless this man. He founded the company that later became Kraft Foods Inc., and generations of university students on a budget owe this man their thanks for Kraft Dinner.

Dying in 1874 wasn't as fashionable as being born, it seems. Passings of note do include:
Rabbi Abraham Geiger, founder of Reform Judaism
Millard Fillmore, 13th President of the United States
David Friedrich Strauss, a German liberal Protestant theologian and writer, who scandalized Christian Europe with his research and writings about the "historical Jesus" which present Jesus as non-divine
Chang and Eng Bunker, Thai-American conjoined twin brothers and sideshow performers whose condition and birthplace became the basis for the term "Siamese twins."
And Anders Jonas Ångström, Swedish physicist and one of the founders of the science of spectroscopy. Named in his honor is the Ångström, a unit of measure in which the wavelengths of light and interatomic spacings in condensed matter are measured. He also has a crater on the Moon, and one of the main building complexes of Uppsala University named for him.

And so we turn, at last, to Tesla in 1874. As they used to say in those old radio serials, when last we left our hero...

And when last we saw him, young Nikola was trying to figure out a way to tell his father—an Orthodox priest who expected his son to follow him into the family business—that what he really wanted to do was become an electrical engineer.
But before he could, Tesla received a strange letter from his father shortly before the end of term, suggesting that he not return home but rather go on a shooting expedition in the mountains. Tesla found this an odd suggestion, since his father had always opposed hunting for sport.
Now, in O’Neill’s Prodigal Genius, its suggested that Tesla’s parents—ever cautious about Nikola’s health—had tried to prevent him from coming home because of a cholera outbreak in the Gospic district. While this seems perfectly reasonable, why the subterfuge? Why not simply say: “Hey Niko—better stay away until this whole cholera thing blows over, m’kay?”
More likely, as some other Tesla biographers have suggested, this was a way to try and help Tesla avoid the compulsory three-year military term that all young men had to serve in the Austrian military in this era. It is notable that Tesla does not mention this military term (or its avoidance) at all in his biography, and he did end up disappearing into the woods for about a year as we’ll see in a minute.
First, however, whether he was aware of his parents’ real reasons in cautioning him away from home or not, he returned to Gospic against their wishes. In his biography, Tesla mocks the simple and superstitious people of Gospic for not understanding the origin of the cholera that would intermittently plague the city:
“It is incredible how absolutely ignorant people were as to the causes of this scourge,” Tesla notes. “They thought that the deadly agents were transmitted through the air and filled it with pungent odors and smoke. In the meantime they drank the infected water and died in heaps.”
For all his superior understanding, it’s noteworthy that Tesla contracted cholera the very day he arrived back in Gospic and was bedridden for months.
Nice work, smarty-pants.
Now, I’m not trying to minimize the seriousness of Tesla’s condition, cholera is serious business: vomiting, muscle cramping, and the potential for fatal dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Tesla reports being close to death several times during his convalescence. What saved him, Tesla says, was his father’s final acceptance and permission for his son to become an engineer.

“In one of the sinking spells which was thought to be the last, my father rushed into the room. I still see his pallid face as he tried to cheer me in tones belying his assurance. "Perhaps," I said, "I may get well if you will let me study engineering." "You will go to the best technical institution in the world," he solemnly replied, and I knew that he meant it.”

And after that, Tesla did recover. However, there remained the pesky problem of the compulsory military service. With war breaking out against the Turks, once again Milutin recommended that extended hunting trip. And so in 1874, risking prison if caught, Tesla disappeared into the mountains near Gračac.
Here, I think, O’Neill makes a good point. We should appreciate how serious this situation was not just for Tesla, but his whole family.
Remember that in addition to the priesthood, the Tesla family had a tradition of sending sons to military service. The inventor’s grandfather, also named Nikola Tesla, was a sergeant in Napoleon’s Illyrian army. Relatives of Nikola’s had achieved high rank and honours in the army; many were still in active service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of his mother Djouka’s brothers, Pajo Mandić, was a field marshal in the Austro-Hungarian army. Another relative ran an Austrian military academy. For a member of that family to become essentially a “draft dodger” or a “conscientious objector” would have been scandalous, in addition to illegal. I think Nikola’s father was perfectly aware of this when he kept emphasizing a “hunting trip” to the mountains, rather than an open acknowledgment that his son should avoid the draft. Surely he, too, could have been liable to prosecution for encouraging his son to run away.
War with the Turks was threatening, and given his son's delicate health (and the early death of his only other boy), doubtless the risk was worth it in Milutin's mind.
And so at this point in Tesla’s life, I always envision him wandering the countryside like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, hiding out until the heat back home blows over.
Nikola spent a year exploring the mountains in hunter's garb, and he felt that the extended contact with nature made him stronger, both physically and mentally.
With nothing but time on his hands, Tesla spent his days in thought, reading, or planning his future and imagining great inventions.
One plan was to send letters and packages across the seas in spherical containers, blasted through submarine tubes by high-pressured seawater.
Another idea, right out of a sci-fi novel, was to construct an orbiting geo-stationary ring around the earth’s equator which would allow for travel around the globe at a rate of about one thousand miles an hour. To Tesla’s credit, this idea has some analogs in the geo-synchronized satellites not invented until the mid twentieth century, though he envisioned it as a way to quickly move people and goods around the planet. How exactly this would get built (Tesla makes reference to some sort of scaffolding that would be removed once the ring was complete), or how you would reach the fully-functioning ring before not just the advent of rocket technology but when the Wright Brothers were still some 29 years away from their first flight wasn’t something that seemed to concern Tesla.
(And, just because I looked it up: when Tesla concocted this idea Wilbur Wright was 7 years old, and Orville was only 3. And that’s today’s historical fun fact!)
Give him credit: Tesla was never one to think small.
In his excellent book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson makes an interesting observation about Tesla’s desire throughout his life as an inventor to “think big” like this, and to seek out the ideal behind an invention. He argues that such an impulse comes ultimately from Tesla’s exposure to the Orthodox Christian theology of his father and uncles in the priesthood.
In the Orthodox faith, the material universe is not only orderly, but everything in it—whether natural or manmade—has a logos, that is an underlying divine principle imparted to it via Jesus Christ, who was the capital-L Logos, the Word, through whom (as the second person of the Holy Trinity) the universe was created.
“Our human task as craftsmen and manufacturers,” writes one Orthodox bishop, “is to discern this logos dwelling in each thing and to render it manifest; we seek not to dominate but to cooperate.”
While certainly not (by his own admission) an orthodox believer (either upper- or lower-case O), Tesla's early exposure to this philosophy certainly shaped him and his worldview. We’ll talk in a few episodes about the contrast between Tesla and his long-time frenemy Thomas Edison, but I think in many ways this is a good summary of the difference: while Edison’s style was brash and American in its desire to dominate the forces of nature and bend them to human uses, Tesla strikes one as more interested in harnessing the power of nature in a cooperative fashion. He didn’t seek to dam or divert Niagara Falls, but to use its natural properties to bring electricity to the masses.
And like his reformer father, as he grew older Tesla became less interested in making money from his inventions and more concerned with how they might benefit humanity. Whether it was wireless power, or radio control, or his so-called 'peace beam' that would render war obsolete, Tesla's driving force in later life was the improvement of man's place in the world.
This approach, though likely subconscious, came from his exposure to the thinking and beliefs of a father he never really got along with.
But as fantastic as Tesla’s wilderness plans sound, Tesla himself eventually became aware of their impracticality. The vision was there, he said, but the understanding of principles was lacking. For example, he realized later that his idea for the submarine tubes was impractical if not impossible as he had failed to take into account the frictional resistance of the pipe to the flow of water.
Over the course of this year, Tesla’s father worked on his connections (especially his high-ranking relatives in the Army) to use their influence to enable his son to escape conscription and avoid punishment for failing to report for duty. Along with the excuse of Nikola's delicate health, Milutin was ultimately able to get Nikola exempted from the draft.
Tesla returned home to Gospic after his year as a mountain man, and learned that his father had kept his sick-bed promise to his son.
Milutin had somehow managed to secure (perhaps, again, through family connections) a scholarship from the Military Frontier Administration Authority. The scholarship would pay for three years and would permit Tesla to attend the Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria. Upon completion of his studies, Tesla would owe the Military Authority eight years of service (although this never seems to come up again in Tesla biographies—perhaps because Tesla never completed his degree, or perhaps because the military frontier and its administration were themselves dissolved a few years later, but we'll get to that).
Despite his scholarship, Tesla was determined to make the most of his time at the polytechnic. “I had made up my mind to give my parents a surprise,” Tesla later wrote, and he threw himself into his studies with abandon. Doubtless he wanted to prove to his father in particular that giving his permission to study engineering was the right choice. Tesla plunged into his studies, supposedly allowing himself only four hours' rest, not all of which he spent in slumber. He would go to bed at 11PM and read himself to sleep. He was up again by 3AM, tackling his studies.
By cramming from three in the morning until eleven at night, he completed two years' work in one. He also apparently found time to start a Serbian culture club. He was fueled by what he described as “copious” amounts of coffee. So copious, in fact, that Tesla began experiencing heart palpitations from all the caffeine and so began what would be a life-long moderation in the amount of coffee he would consume.
When I was in my first year of university I happened to win a year’s supply of Pepsi, which I relied on pretty hard to get me through exam time, so I can related to the whole over-caffeinated heart palpitations thing…
Physics, mathematics, and mechanics were his main studies, but so too was literature. Showing some flashes of his compulsive tendencies, he felt compelled to finish (once started) the complete works of Voltaire. He didn’t appear to enjoy Voltaire (referring to him as a coffee-swilling “monster”) but nevertheless he hate-read all 100 volumes of the man’s complete works.
At the end of the year he sailed through nine exams with ease. Returning home with the highest marks in all subjects, he expected his father to be proud. Instead, Tesla recounts that his father “made light of these hard won honors,” and instead showed concern only for Nikola's health, criticizing him for endangering it after his earlier narrow escape from death.
“That almost killed my ambition,” he writes. Several years later, after his father had died, Nikola discovered a package of letters which one of the professors had written to Milutin concerned about how hard Nikola was pushing himself, and urging Milutin to take his son away from the Institution, lest he kill himself through overwork.
While this might seem a harsh reaction, as a father myself I kinda have to feel for Milutin and be impressed by the restraint he showed in letting Nikola finish out the term. While this is long before the era of the helicopter parent (and I hope I'm not one of those, by the way) for parents who had already lost one son tragically, to be warned that another might be working himself to death must have been terrifying. The natural impulse would be to get in your buggy and go get the boy, for his own good. That's what I would have done, anyway.
Instead, Milutin let his son stay, a sign (I think) of knowing just how important this vocation was to young Nikola—even if he did get a bit passive-aggressive once the boy was home.
Returning to school the following year, and perhaps chaffing at both his father's interference as well as the taunting of his fellow students for a fairly monastic way of life, Tesla began to cut loose...and would come to pay the price.
Primarily, Tesla's rebellion took the form of gambling. There is some suggestion that, at first, Tesla took up cards mainly as a way to relax between study sessions. However, his natural intelligence and keen deductive skills meant he was quite good at cards, winning more often than he lost. Soon he was spending long hours in coffee shops playing cards, billards, and chess for money. His father, when he caught wind of this, couldn't understand what he saw as a senseless waste of time and money. For his part, Nikola fell back on that favorite saying of all addicts: “I can stop whenever I please,” he told his father, “but is it worthwhile to give up that which I would purchase with the joys of Paradise?”
Adding to the rift between father and son was the abolition of the Military Frontier Authority, and along with it the scholarship upon which they depended.
When not playing cards, Tesla did actually attend class and during his second year a state-of-the-art direct-current Gramme dynamo was delivered from Paris to the classroom of Professor Poeschl, Tesla's physics teacher. The arrival of this dynamo was to have momentous implications for Tesla and his life.
To understand why, it's important to know a bit of the difference between alternating current (AC) (which is what we all use today, thanks to Tesla) and direct current (DC) (which is still in use today for certain applications, but which in the 1870s was the only real option available).
Electricity in its natural state is alternating. This means that its direction of flow changes rapidly. An analogy often used is of a river that flows upstream one moment, only to switch downstream the next, and then back and forth again and again. There's no way to harness such a river with, for example, a waterwheel and have it do any useful work.
So prior to the advent of AC motors, dynamos were equipped with a device called a commutator—a series of wire brushes that transferred the current from the generator to the motor in only one direction of flow, making it a direct current motor. It was a clunky piece of technology, prone to sending out storms of electrical sparks.
While Professor Poeschl displayed this up-to-date equipment, electric sparks and all, Tesla intuitively deduced that the commutator was unnecessary and that alternating current (AC) could be harnessed without the need to first transform it into DC power. When he said as much in class, his professor shot him down--hard.
Other scientists had toyed with the idea of an AC dynamo long before it occurred to Tesla, but none had met with success. “Mr. Tesla may do many things,” Professor Poeschl said to the class, “but this he cannot accomplish. His plan is simply a perpetual motion scheme.”
The exchange must have amounted to more than that, since Prof. Poeschl devoted his next lecture and demonstration to refuting Tesla's objections one by one. His dissection was so thorough and methodical, that Tesla later confessed that even he wavered in his belief in the practicality of AC power.
But instinct can be a powerful thing, something which transcends logic, and Tesla couldn't shake the surety of his insight. “We have, undoubtedly, certain finer fibers,” Tesla later wrote, “that enable us to perceive truths when logical deduction, or any other willful effort of the brain, is futile. For a time I wavered, impressed by the professor's authority, but soon became convinced I was right and undertook the task with all the fire and boundless confidence of youth.”
You have to admire the hutzpah of Tesla here: he simply came to believe that his professor and everyone else in the world was wrong, and that he was right. It's the kind of belief that, if you prove it, makes you a genius and a visionary, but which if it doesn't pan out can drive you mad.
Tesla spent hours mentally constructing and deconstructing DC and AC motors and generators. He would visualize whole systems around the technologies...but his flash of insight unfortunately didn't bring with it the essential practical details of how this innovation could actually be built and work. He would spend years obsessed with proving the professor wrong but getting no closer to a solution.
In the meantime, Tesla's new bohemian lifestyle began to get the better of him. By his third year Tesla was running into difficulties at school. He returned to Graz in the fall of 1877 but soon stopped attending lectures, and university records show that he wasn't even registered for the spring term in 1878.
Tesla was bored and frustrated by his inability to find a solution to his AC problem and so began to gamble more heavily to relieve the tension, sometimes in marathons of twenty-four hours at a stretch. Although Tesla tended to return his winnings to heavy losers, few did likewise for him, and so one semester he lost his entire allowance, including the money for tuition. His father was furious, but his mother came to him with “a roll of bills” and said, “Go and enjoy yourself. The sooner you lose all we possess the better it will be. I know that you will get over it.”
Chastened by this, Nikola won back his initial losses and returned the balance to his family. “I conquered my passion then and there,” he wrote, and “tore it from my heart so as not to leave a trace of desire. Ever since that time I have been as indifferent to any form of gambling as to picking teeth.”...Which is a nice story, but not really true.
Tesla gambled quite freely in later years, particularly during his heyday in New York society. He was especially skilled at billiards. An Edison employee recalled: “He played a beautiful game. [Tesla] was not a high scorer, but his cushion shots displayed skill equal to that of a professional exponent of this art.” It has also been suggested that in the early 1890s, Tesla hustled some of the wealthy society set that he ran with in New York by feigning minimal ability in the sport.
I like to believe this is true—it’s the romantic in me.
His gambling addiction conquered or not, it was too late: exam time came, and Tesla found himself woefully unprepared. He asked for an extension to study but was denied. He never graduated from the Austrian Polytechnic School and did not receive any grades for his last semester there.
Now, I should point out Tesla never mentions flunking out in his autobiography, and O'Neill spins it in a more positive light in Prodigal Genius—saying Tesla simply chose not to return after taking up a job at an engineering firm. I think the fact that both are essentially silent on the matter is quite telling.
In September 1878, Tesla wrote to a pro-Serbian newspaper, the Queen Bee, requesting help in securing a new scholarship to continue his studies in either Vienna or Brno. He claimed he had to give up his military scholarship due to unspecified illness. He listed among his qualifications fluency in Italian, French, and English, and signed the letter “Nikola Tesla, technician.”
His request was turned down.
Likely fearing that his parents would find out about his failure, Tesla secretly packed his things, headed south over the border into Slovenia, and disappeared.


Next week, we'll join the search for Tesla as his father goes looking to see what's become of his son. And after a couple of aimless, frustrated montage years of his life, Tesla will have his first encounter with a name that will be entangled with his forever: Thomas Alva Edison.

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Thanks for listening. I’m Stephen Kotowych.

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002 – Tesla – School Days 1861-1874

This week, we’ll cover Tesla’s schooling from the time he first enrolled in primary school, right up until he heads off for engineering school in the late 1870s. It’s a major turning point in Tesla’s life, and it makes sense to break there until next time.

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001 – Tesla – Childhood 1856-1861

Nikola Tesla was born at the stroke of midnight between July 9 and 10, 1856. In this episode, we’ll learn about Tesla’s childhood years on the rural frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and how early tragedy and a contentious relationship with his father would shape the rest of his life and give him the abilities he needed to make later breakthrough innovations in electricity.

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